Darjeeling crisis: Raids on GJM office trigger violent protests
Protesters set ablaze government buildings and vehicles and a World Heritage Site train station in Darjeeling on Thursday as violence erupted in Bengal’s picturesque hill districts where the Gorkhas are spearheading an agitation for a separate state.
The flare-up came shortly after police raided an office of the ruling Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in Darjeeling and claimed to have seized arms, explosives and a night vision equipment.
The GJM, which rules the hill districts under the semi-autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), called an indefinite shutdown to protest the raid.
In Kolkata, chief minister Mamata Banerjee said there was a conspiracy to kill some of her cabinet colleagues during a visit to Darjeeling on June 8, the day the protests started in the hills over an alleged government move to impose Bengali in schools across the state.
Though the government later said the subject will be optional, the GJM has refused to back down and renewed its demand for a separate state.
On Thursday, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Darjeeling – one of the most popular hill stations in India – and Kalimpong district and clashed with police, officials said.
They set fire to a police outpost and a sericulture department office in Kalimpong. An attempt to torch government tourist lodge was foiled by police. In Darjeeling, protesters set a vehicle on fire, the officials added.
Police caned protesters and fired tear gas shells in retaliation to stone pelting by GJM supporters.
The Ghayabari railway station of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, popularly known as the toy train, was set ablaze at around 9 pm but local people managed to douse the fire, officials said. The station is 31 km from Siliguri, which falls under Darjeeling district but not a part of the GTC.
GJM chief Bimal Gurung, who went into hiding last week, lashed out at the Trinamool government in a video message.
“I am the chief executive of GTA which is equivalent to a cabinet minister’s rank. The way they have vandalised my office and residence on Thursday is enough to prove the black policy of the state government,” Gurung said in the message in Nepali and circulated through WhatsApp.
“It was carried out under the instructions of the chief minister which is highly condemnable,” Gurung added. He didn’t reveal his location.
In a statement earlier in the day, the GJM said the police bows and arrows seized during the raid were meant for an annual archery competition .
“All that they have found are a few bows and a couple of dozen arrows, few rusted spades, a rusted axe, a rusted sickle and a couple of boxes of fire crackers.... all these tools are found in almost every local household. Two boxes of firecrackers were left overs from our recent municipal election wins celebrations,” it said.
The Trinamool made major inroads in the hills in the municipal polls held in May, denting the GJM’s absolute hold over the electorate in the council area. Many believe the GJM is trying to revive its political fortunes through the statehood agitation.
Mamata Banerjee said the government was keeping a watch on the hills.
“We want peace in the hills, and in Bengal. If anybody wants to create trouble, the administration will take action according to law,” Banerjee said at a police function in Kolkata.
Her government this week called in the army to control the situation in the hill districts, visited by lakhs of tourists every year.
“Explosives were stockpiled in huge quantities in the hills. I have never seen so many Molotov cocktails being hurled. The attack continued for two hours,” she added, referring to the first wave of violence that saw protesters set ablaze government buildings and vehicles on June 8.
The opposition BJP and CPM asked Banerjee to convene an all-party meeting in Darjeeling to defuse the crisis, besides initiate tripartite talks with the Centre and GJM.
Congress said they are ready to cooperate participate in any dialogue.
In Delhi, a home ministry official said 400 additional paramilitary personnel have been rushed to Darjeeling to assist the local administration. The Centre had earlier sent 1,000 paramilitary personnel on a request from the state.
(With inputs from HTC, Kolkata)